But the Turkish bath is
also a facility—the area, or building in which bathers took their
Turkish baths. Later on, such establishments also included
showers, perhaps a steam room, and sometimes a cold plunge
However, these were all additional to the Turkish bath
process, and not part of it. The Victorian Turkish bath itself was
not a process during which bathers came into contact with steam.
Yet writers frequently persist in referring to Victorian Turkish
baths as vapour baths, or equating them to steam baths or hammams.
The differences between the Victorian Turkish bath, on the one
hand, and the hot-air baths found in Turkey and the Islamic world,
on the other, are important
For if a minor mythology of the bath
is not to gain credence as a result of seeing things which were
mostly not there, or did not appear till much later, we need to
understand why the first Victorian baths were built, and how they
were seen by their promoters.
It is, of course, confusing that the English-speaking world sees
such baths as Turkish baths, and that until recently French-speakers saw them as
More logically, perhaps, German-speakers, linking recent history
with the more distant past, refer to them as Roman-Irish baths.
This isn’t a reference, as one writer maintained, to the old Irish
sweat bath (also to be found, incidentally, in American Indian
cultures) but to the fact that the first Victorian Turkish bath was built
in Co.Cork by the Irish physician, Dr Richard Barter, who, after
some preliminary experiments, based it more closely on the Roman
Barter owned a hydropathic establishment at St Ann’s Hill, near
Blarney. He had earlier found that the sweat needed to remove, or
at least alleviate, the pain of such complaints as gout and
rheumatism, was more easily attained in a vapour bath than in the
uncomfortable wet-sheet packing of the cold water cure practised
by the followers of Vincent Priessnitz.
In 1856 Barter read The Pillars of Hercules in which David
Urquhart described the hot-air baths he patronised when First
Secretary at the British embassy in Constantinople.
The air in the hottest room was described as being dry, and Barter
knew that the therapeutic effectiveness of hot air increased with
its temperature, and that the body is able to withstand dry heat
at greater temperatures than wet heat.
Barter contacted Urquhart, successfully inviting him to St Ann’s
to help him build what Urquhart, and earlier travellers, had
called a hammam, or ‘Turkish bath’.
Urquhart later admitted that he had originally written the
chapters on the Turkish bath twenty years before The
Pillars was published, and he had not originally realised
how humid the air in the hammams had been.
The Islamic adoption of hot-air baths from the eastern Roman
empire, and their subsequent adaptation for ritual cleansing, led
to the use of washing facilities within the hot rooms, inevitably
giving rise to wet floors, humidity and general dampness.
But, originally for medical reasons, the ideal Victorian Turkish
bath was one in which any showers, washing facilities, or pools
were located apart from the hot rooms so that the air within them
was kept as comfortably dry as possible.
Yet so closely is our present vision of Turkish baths fixated on
steam that the author of a recent paper can claim, after examining
a handful of Irish establishments built between 1857 and 1863,
that all Turkish baths in Ireland seemed to follow a similar plan.
This plan featured ‘a central chimney disguised as a tower’. Its
purpose was to carry ‘excess steam away from the bathing chambers’.
Inside the building, the guiding decorative principle was the use
of ‘surfaces that could withstand the high levels of steam
required in the treatment of patients.’
So it is necessary to insist that any such chimneys, like those
adjacent to other buildings such as swimming pools and factories, were designed
allow smoke and combustion gases produced in the
furnace to escape at a height sufficient to minimise fire risk
and, in this instance, to keep fumes as far as possible from the
low-level intake of fresh air which, after heating, will be
inhaled by the bathers.